A Spy for the Union: The Life and Execution of Timothy Webster
By Corey Recko, McFarland & Co., 2014, $35
As was the case with Mata Hari in World War I, Timothy Webster has suffered from being too famous—never an asset for a spy, which in his case comes from being the first of his profession to be executed for espionage during the American Civil War, in April 1862. Besides being vilified by every newspaper in Richmond, his exploits were equally distorted by his spymaster, Allan Pinkerton, whose penchant for exaggeration is equally famous. In A Spy for the Union, Corey Recko delves into primary sources to reconstruct a more accurate recounting of Webster’s life, which turns out to be interesting enough.
Born in Sussex, England, in 1822 and moving to Princeton, N.J., at age 8, Webster became a naturalized citizen and a New York City police officer. He subsequently worked for Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency on a variety of notable criminal cases and was among President-elect Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguards before the war led Pinkerton and Webster into the world of espionage. In that capacity Webster, using his British citizenship, managed to conduct intelligence-gathering operations in Maryland, Memphis, Tenn., and Richmond, where the Confederate capital’s Brig. Gen. John H. Winder thought him “a noble fellow, a most valuable man to us.” Only when Pinkerton dispatched two men to check on him—only for them to end up being captured—did one of those men give Webster away.
Profusely illustrated, A Spy for the Union should set some records straight and provide Civil War buffs with an intriguing change of pace.
Originally published in the September 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.